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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

The Arab world has a pivotal role to play in an emerging global future

Over two days in Abu Dhabi, remarkable minds gathered to draw up a new and forward-looking blueprint of regional co-operation and international engagement

Raghida Dergham at a previous meeting of the Beirut Institute, in Abu Dhabi. Delores Johnson / The National )
Raghida Dergham at a previous meeting of the Beirut Institute, in Abu Dhabi. Delores Johnson / The National )

The preoccupation of citizens of the Arab region with political news does not mean they are not concerned about other fateful issues, beginning with the challenges of their daily lives and not ending with the alignment of their nations in the international sphere. The things that President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin say and do also concern Arab citizens, not for the sake of entertainment, but because they radically impact their collective future.

The US relationship with Arab Gulf countries is also the focus of existential concern among Arab citizens, in a way that is profoundly different from the US interest in this relationship, in government, media, and public opinion. The same applies to Russian policies in the Middle East, especially in relation to addressing Moscow’s bias towards Iran in the wake of the alliance on the ground in Syria, or Russian-Israeli relations. On the surface, US and Russian priorities focus on regional conflicts and geopolitical competition, but they are also fundamentally about economics. The question that repeatedly imposes itself here is whether the role of Arab leaders is confined to passive reception, and if so, what needs to be done to render this role proactive.

In this context, the recommendations issued this week by the Beirut Institute, as the outcome of its second-edition summit in Abu Dhabi, titled Constructing the Arab Region’s Engagement in the Emerging Global Future, did not stop at highlighting the requirements for strengthening the forces of order, but tackled other fundamental strategic imperatives including accelerating connected regional economic development, promoting good governance for better integration of Arab citizens and communities, empowering the diverse people of the Arab region through an inclusive forward-looking vision, and embracing technology by strengthening Arab integration with global innovation networks with focus on leadership and entrepreneurship.

These are not fancy buzzwords but the summary of a rich interactive dialogue that brought together around 150 global figures with invaluable experience and expertise on a broad range of fields, who met for two days in May to come up with a roadmap for policymakers and the public opinion, producing these important recommendations.

Before I expand on the content of the recommendations, I am the founder and executive chairman of the Beirut Institute, a think-tank for the Arab region with a global reach. The second edition of the Beirut Institute Summit held in Abu Dhabi was co-chaired by Prince Turki Al Faisal of Saudi Arabia, in addition to myself. His royal highness is the backbone of the institute. The recommendations were drafted by the strategic knowledge partner AT Kearney, led by Rudolph Lohmeyer. Mr Lohmeyer achieved an incredibly difficult task by summarising the outcomes of the incredible brainstorming of the remarkable minds that took place at the summit during closed policy-drafting sessions and discussions between global leaders (see beirutinstitute.org for further details, as well as the full text of the recommendations). Credit must be given to all those who contributed to these recommendations and made them possible, particularly the UAE capital for hosting the summit.

The first theme of the recommendations was strengthening the forces of order, and tackled candidly the lack of strategic alignment and institutional integration between the key Arab countries, while noting the “important exception” of the deepening ties between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which represents a powerful source of momentum that can now be extended to inspire and align the rest of the region. It noted that great power rivalry has returned globally and is being played out in the Middle East in ways that not only are contributing directly to regional instability and vast human suffering, but that also in many ways do not serve the long-term strategic interests of the external powers themselves.

Nevertheless, the recommendations noted that the very complexity and uncertainty of this context creates significant opportunities for regional leaders to break the momentum of the forces of disorder and strengthen the forces of order. One way to do this, according to the recommendations, is to build a new and sustainable regional structure and for Arab leaders to drive a diplomatic effort to identify a framework of shared strategic interests among the great powers, the United States, Russia and China centred on stabilising the Middle East.

The second strategic imperative is deepening Arab strategic integration, driving meaningful economic integration as well as security co-operation, including in integrated missile defines to counter the growing ballistic missile threat, maritime navigation, military training, counter terrorism and longer-term efforts to counter extremism. In addition, Arab leaders must push for proactively delivering services and support to those most in need and thereby preventing the emergence of strategic vacuums that others in the region have so skilfully exploited.

Next, the recommendations call for revitalising sustainable coalition capabilities, as part of any new regional co-ordination structure that would consist of integrated networks “that fuse local personnel and capabilities with the unique technology platforms of external allies to deliver potent influence where it is most needed in pre-conflict, conflict and post-conflict settings”.

Then under the title of neutralising active conflicts through comprehensive, coalition-based action, the Beirut Institute summit recommendations appealed to the region’s leaders to accelerate action to neutralise active conflicts with all possible urgency, by applying the revitalised coalition capabilities. In Syria, while continued military engagement is necessary, it is insufficient, and the effort must leverage coalition capabilities “to deliver comprehensive support to local communities” for example in the south-eastern Euphrates Valley. Urgent and large investments must be committed to reconstruction, but in the vast majority of Syria where the regime will retain control, “all reconstruction support should be tied to progress toward a viable, transparent political solution to the crisis.”

In Yemen, the recommendations stated that the conflict “serves the strategic purposes of the Houthi rebels and their supporters.” Therefore, “significant international efforts must be made to intensify the strategic costs to Iran of its destabilising support of the rebels”. The recommendations emphasised the need to identify the parameters of the lasting solution to the crisis in Yemen, in addition to establishing “a tangible body to drive a major reconstruction of the country and its human infrastructure”.

In Libya, the recommendations called for addressing excessive internationalisation of Libya’s internal political process, in which many diverse, often competing external entities have worked at various levels and with a varied set of Libyan actors without an integrated, co-ordinated strategic vision. The document called for the international community to align itself “around a single, coherent process of political dialogue in which Libyan players have decisive weight”.

On the Palestinian issue, the recommendations called on regional leaders to focus on Palestinian reconciliation and strategic unity among Palestinians, and to launch a comprehensive regional effort to revive the Arab peace initiative and the two-state solution.

Most recommendations contained necessary ideas for Arab leaders to adopt, including the institutionalisation of an Arab-led mediation such as by creating a dispute-resolution entity (an Arabian Mediation Support Unit) with the professional integration of mediation processes and skilled and trained mediators.

Economically, the recommendations detailed a roadmap for accelerating connected economic development in the region, including by creating favourable legal conditions for entrepreneurship and establishing effective frameworks for facilitating the creation of public-private partnerships aimed at development of public goods.

The recommendations overviewed pathways of good governance and how to expand its models to improve the integration of individuals and local communities, calling for the support of progress toward the emergence of a new citizen-led social contract. Part of this would be achieved by introducing a coherent taxation system as a sustainable source of income and partnership with citizens, and through a commitment to consistent, transparent application of the rule of law.

The decision-makers, who for two days pored over the issue of how to construct the Arab region’s engagement in the global future, did not ignore the human and social elements. Indeed, one of the issues they focused on was the “vital importance of advancing more inclusive political processes across the region as means of deconstructing counterproductive sectarian divisions and realising the value of the region’s remarkable diversity”.

They overviewed what is needed to empower moderate future leaders for the region and systematically empower women, in tandem with expanding bold and visionary leadership across and embracing a technology-driven vision that the recommendations tackled in detail.

Bringing together strategic minds from across the world to think about the Arab region’s integration in the global future is an important mission, especially when the meeting concludes with recommendations that pave the way for further convergence. It is necessary for the Arab region that this conversation continues across the world. Here, during the Beirut Institute summit in the spring, one of the key strategic dialogues took place between Russian and American figures, opening a new door for the role of think tanks in the Arab region to host sessions for US-Russian dialogue. This marks a stark departure from the usual exclusion of Arabs in strategic and fateful dialogues around the world.